Naveen Patnaik's BJD braces for battle against the BJP in Odisha

The Biju Janata Dal led by Naveen Patnaik falls back on its old plank of regionalism to hold on to its own political space in the face of an increasingly assertive BJP, which has replaced the Congress as the main opposition party.

Published : Jan 23, 2021 06:00 IST

Biju Janata Dal members gathered around the statue of Biju Patnaik in Bhubaneshwar on December 26 on the occasion of the party’s 24th foundation day.

Biju Janata Dal members gathered around the statue of Biju Patnaik in Bhubaneshwar on December 26 on the occasion of the party’s 24th foundation day.

AT a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claims it will form the government on its own after the next Assembly election in Odisha, the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is striving hard to return to its plank of regionalism. The concept behind this plank is: only a regional party can do justice to the aspirations of Odisha’s youth.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said recently that State governments headed by the Congress were remote-controlled from Delhi and that BJP-ruled States followed the directions of the national leadership. “Compare this with the trajectory of Odisha under a regional party. There is a stark and positive difference. The BJD as a regional party stands for preserving and promoting the unique identity of Odisha,” he said at the executive committee meeting of the Biju Yuva Janata Dal, the party’s youth wing. The meeting was held days before the BJD’s 24th foundation day celebrations on December 26, 2020. “We don’t have any bosses in Delhi. Our bosses are the four and half crore people of Odisha. We have to impress only the people of Odisha and will continue to fight for their rights,” he said.

Also read: BJP's blueprint for Odisha

This was also the party’s stance ahead of the 2019 general election. It has turned to aggressive posturing to safeguard its space and voice as a regional party by strongly opposing the two national parties that have a strong presence in Odisha, the BJP and the Congress. The claims made by senior BJP leaders that their party will oust the Trinamool Congress government in neighbouring West Bengal this year also seem to have forced the BJD to fall back on its old strategy to strengthen its organisational base.

Focus on youth and women

After successfully consolidating the BJD’s base among women by strengthening women’s self-help groups across the State, Naveen Patnaik has started focussing on the youth. The Chief Minister, whose stature remains unmatched in the State’s political arena, has also started grooming young leaders to sustain the party’s strength.

Maintaining that the BJD as a regional party was synonymous with the aspirations and ideals for which the State of Odisha was formed, Naveen Patnaik said that his message was aimed at not only the Biju Yuva Janata Dal but the youth of the State in the present and for times to come.

Addressing party workers on the BJD’s foundation day, he said: “Empowerment of women is the empowerment of the nation. No household, no society, no State, no country has ever moved forward without empowering its women.” He also announced that the BJD would raise the issue of women’s reservation in every session of Parliament: “National parties remember women’s empowerment during elections and commit in their manifesto only to conveniently forget it after winning the elections. The BJD will keep reminding the national parties about this forgotten promise.”

Tactical moves

Naveen Patnaik, who has been Odisha’s Chief Minister since March 5, 2000, all but abandoned his party’s ‘equidistance’ policy in the aftermath of the 2019 general election. The BJD tactically supported the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, though it opposed the National Register of Citizens.

The BJD had supported Centre’s demonetisation move, and later it supported the revocation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir. To the bafflement of political analysts, it even supported a BJP nominee in the Rajya Sabha election in June 2019. The move attracted strong criticism from the Congress, which alleged that the BJD was hand in glove with the BJP.

Also read: Patnaik's welfarism defeats Modi wave again

Following the 2019 general election, the BJD even avoided taking to the streets whenever there was a fuel price hike as it used to do in the past. But now, with the BJP as the main challenger in the urban local body elections that are likely to be held in 2021 and the rural body elections scheduled to be held in early 2022, the BJD has again started asserting its strength. It seems to have finally realised that the Sangh Parivar has gained strength since it snapped ties with it before the 2009 general election. The party has been facing the BJP as the main opposition since 2017 when the saffron party performed better than the Congress in panchayat elections.

The Congress, on the other hand, has been gradually losing strength in Odisha since the 2000 election, when it lost power to the BJD-BJP combine. The Congress’ lack of a strong leadership in the State has pushed it to the third position, while the BJP has been growing at its expense.

The BJD, on the other hand, has survived for two decades without much difficulty in the absence of any other strong regional party. Several regional parties sprung up during this time, but many of them merged with other parties while the few surviving ones are practically inactive politically.

Yet, the BJD cannot afford to take things for granted, particularly when the BJP is growing in strength. Being friendly with the BJP may cost it dear in future. Naveen Patnaik and his party are into their fifth consecutive term in office. Many party legislators who have been winning elections consecutively are no longer very popular.

Political analysts, however, do not take the latest round of rivalry between the two parties seriously. One of them, Sudhir Pattnaik, said: “The rivalry between the BJD and the BJP appears to be nebulous since the central leadership of the BJP doesn’t seem to be in a mood to displease and displace Naveen Patnaik as he continues to bail them out on almost all critical issues at the national level.”

Naveen Patnaik himself continues to retain his popularity. His leadership has helped both newcomers and those battling the anti-incumbency sentiment to win elections. The Chief Minister has been successful in keeping his support base intact. He did not vehemently oppose the new farm laws, and his party did not support the recent nationwide bandh called by farmers. Yet, he kept all State government offices closed on December 8, the day of the bandh. He has avoided confrontations with farmers, and the smooth procurement of paddy across the State has kept the farming community happy.

Battling poverty and corruption

On the administration front, Naveen Patnaik has adopted a novel approach to implement his latest mantra of ‘5Ts’— transparency, technology, teamwork, time and transformation—which he says will usher in an empowered Odisha where poverty will be a thing of the past, women will be equal partners in growth and development, development will be inclusive, and the dreams of the youth will come true. He has gone on record claiming that Odisha is known for highest reduction of poverty in the country and for setting global benchmarks in disaster management. “We have brought more than eight million people out of poverty in the last decade,” he has said.

Also read: Nurture mission in Odisha

He has also emphasised his government’s fight against corruption by announcing that the property details of Ministers, legislators, panchayat samiti chairpersons, zilla parishad presidents and sarpanches from the BJD will be available in the public domain. “It will help the State fight the corruption menace,” he said at the BJD’s State executive council on December 21.

“Corruption is the biggest enemy of development and the Odisha government is focussed on transparency. The State has already launched a fight against poverty, diseases, regional disparity, inequality and natural disasters. Fight against corruption will help us in our fight against all ills of society. Odisha will be the first State to initiate such a step to check corruption,” he said.

On December 28, the State Cabinet approved a proposal that made it mandatory for elected representatives and government employees to submit their property details annually. The move came in the wake of the arrest of Abhay Kant Pathak, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who allegedly amassed assets worth Rs. 9.35 crore, amounting to 435 per cent of his total income. Pradeep Panigrahi, BJD legislator from Gopalpur, has also been arrested in connection with the case.

Fifth term

Going by the observations of the political analysts who have been watching Naveen Patnaik since his entry into politics after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik, in 1997, his fifth term as Chief Minister has been significant in many ways. He has attracted investments to fuel industrial growth and, amid the pandemic, strengthened the State’s public health infrastructure. Besides, he has been striving hard to ensure development of sports and tourism. He has announced plans to build the country’s biggest hockey stadium at Rourkela with a seating capacity of 20,000. It will be ready before the Men’s Hockey World Cup in 2023, which will be held in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela.

The State government has been making continuous efforts to beautify the major pilgrimage centres such as the Jagannath temple at Puri and the Lingaraj temple in Bhubaneswar, make these shrines free of encroachments, and strengthen the tourism infrastructure. Naveen Patnaik has requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi to facilitate the construction of an international airport in Puri.

Naveen Patnaik has also been busy appointing new office-bearers in the BJD’s different wings. Snehangini Chhuria, a legislator from Attabira Assembly constituency in western Odisha, has been appointed president of the party’s women’s wing.

Also read: Odisha proactive in Covid battle

Countering the Congress’ allegation that the BJD was hand in glove with the BJP, a senior BJD leader stated that Naveen Patnaik’s strength and ability to stay in the ring sprang from his thoughtful approach to electoral politics and growth imperatives. While remaining a strong federalist with a secular outlook, the Chief Minister believed in constructive cooperation with the Central government when it came to growth and development issues, he added.

Political observers, however, feel that with the BJP making all-out efforts to strengthen its base across Odisha, Naveen Patnaik must strengthen the party organisation by making himself more accessible to party leaders and workers in the days to come. This is because the outcome of the urban local body elections and the subsequent gram panchayat elections will have a strong bearing on the next Assembly election scheduled for 2024.

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